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Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music - The Definitive Life

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In his commanding new book, the eminent NPR critic Tim Riley takes us on the remarkable journey that brought a Liverpool art student from a disastrous childhood to the highest realms of fame.

Riley portrays Lennon's rise from Hamburg's red light district to Britain's Royal Variety Show; from the charmed naivetéf "Love Me Do" to the soaring ambivalence of "Don't Let Me Down"; from his shotgun marriage to Cynthia Powell in 1962 to his epic media romance with Yoko Ono. Written with the critical insight and stylistic mastery readers have come to expect from Riley, this richly textured narrative draws on numerous new and exclusive interviews with Lennon's friends, enemies, confidantes, and associates; lost memoirs written by relatives and friends; as well as previously undiscovered City of Liverpool records. Riley explores Lennon in all of his contradictions: the British art student who universalized an American style, the anarchic rock 'n' roller with the moral spine, the anti-jazz snob who posed naked with his avant-garde lover, and the misogynist who became a househusband. What emerges is the enormous, seductive, and confounding personality that made Lennon a cultural touchstone.

In Lennon, Riley casts Lennon as a modernist hero in a sweeping epic, dramatizing rock history anew as Lennon himself might have experienced it.

765 pages, Hardcover

First published December 1, 2010

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About the author

Tim Riley

17 books25 followers
NPR CRITIC, AUTHOR, PIANIST, and SPEAKER TIM RILEY reviews pop and classical music for NPR's HERE AND NOW, and has written for the HUFFINGTON POST, THE WASHINGTON POST, SLATE.COM and SALON.COM. He was trained as a classical pianist at Oberlin and Eastman, and remains among the few critics who writes about both "high" and "low" culture and their overlapping concerns.

Brown University sponsored Riley as Critic-In Residence in 2008, and in 2009 he began teaching multi-media courses as Journalist In Residence at Emerson College in Boston.

His first book, Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary (Knopf/Vintage 1988), was hailed by the New York Times as bringing "new insight to the act we've known for all these years..."

A staple author in college courses on rock culture, he gave a keynote address at BEATLES 2000, the first international academic conference in Jyväskylä, Finland. Since condemning the rap group Public Enemy for anti-semitic remarks in his 1990 Boston PHOENIX column, Riley has given lively multi-media lectures at colleges and cultural centers like the Chautauqua Festival on "Censorship in the Arts," and "Rock History."

His current projects include the music metaportal, the RILEY ROCK INDEX.com, and a major new biography of John Lennon for Hyperion, fall 2011.

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5 stars
138 (30%)
4 stars
180 (39%)
3 stars
108 (23%)
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26 (5%)
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6 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 71 reviews
Profile Image for Lakis Fourouklas.
Author 13 books34 followers
September 17, 2011
John Lennon has always been one of my favorite musicians. I’ve been listening to his songs since I remember myself listening to music and I’ve always thought him to be a man who during his life, apart from his art, did nothing more than keep searching to find a destination, where he really wanted to be. Whether what he really wanted to do was change the world through his music, become the main spokesperson for the peace movement or just a stay at home dad, I could not really say; not until now.
This new biography by Tim Riley that comes out next Tuesday, the 20th of September, in the U.S. offers many answers to his life’s big riddles and much more than that. According to the author Lennon wanted all the above and much more than that. However, he was not just a man who wanted something, but also someone who lacked a lot, a tortured soul, who’s never managed to get over the traumas of his childhood: his mother abandoning him, the long absences of his sailor father, the oppression suffered in the hands of his aunt Mimi who raised him. If music had not arrived to save him from his own self he was bound to end up in jail or maybe even six feet under very early in his life since, as people say, at that stage he was nothing more than an accident waiting to happen.
The author pays too much attention to the young Lennon, the one before the creation of the Beatles; the time when he used to wander from one place to the next, when there was absolutely no stability in his life, when the music and the arts were his whole world. He “spent his life searching for father figures and mourning his mother,” we read somewhere. And that’s exactly what he did. Lennon seemed to be desperately searching for something or somebody to hold on to, since: “The worst pain is that of not being wanted.” His mother Judy was a shadowy figure, someone who seemed to follow the wind, with a less than settled life, but she did leave him a legacy and that was her love for music. His father Alf was in his own special way a kind of a dreamer, someone who always had big dreams that were never bound to succeed and who used to make big promises that he was unable to keep. And then there was aunt Mimi, the woman who adopted him because she thought his mother unfit, who provided him with a safe home, but at the same time did everything she possibly could to cut his dreams short, to keep him from spreading his wings and flying high and away into the big and wide world.
We meet an adolescent John who’s full of rage but quite funny, pretty smart but restless. He listens to music and draws sketches; he writes lyrics and goes to school if for nothing else to have fun at the expense of the teachers. Some of his practical jokes are really hilarious, but whatever he does he’s always sad, he feels that something is missing. When he starts playing and writing music that gap is somehow filled, but not completely – never completely. In the end it’s his friendships that save him from chaos; firstly and mostly with Stuart Sutcliffe and then with McCartney, while in the face of the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, he seemed to have met a kind of a father figure; someone he’d nevertheless not hesitate to verbally abuse in the future.
And then came the big breakthrough; the first record, the first decent shows -away from Hamburg’s red light district that is- the success, the fame; and then came the Beatles, the group that was destined to change the face of rock music. Despite everything though, John never felt really happy, never happy at heart. The money, the fame, the drugs and the women, not even the birth of his first son Julian, did not prove enough to appease the restless soul of that arrogant and in many ways humble young man. (As we read he always thought and said that all the other musicians were better than him, even when he was older, and his big influence in the world of music was more than obvious to all who had the eyes to see and ears to listen, which apparently he didn’t.)
As the author implies while Paul was like a spirit of calm and serenity in the group (the favorite of the mothers and the grannies, as he puts it), John seemed to be like a raging stream coming rushing down after a storm of his own creation, thus sooner or later the two of them were bound to clash. The results of that clash are now well known. As it seems John, during the last of his Beatles years, was yet again yearning to find his real self, the rocker, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when we learn that when he saw for the first time the Stones play he said: “I’m in the wrong group!” Instead of finding his real self though he found Yoko, and with her by his side he discovered or rather invented a new, more creative and useful, self. So he started filming experimental movies, creating happenings, clashing with and verbally abusing authority figures and writing some of the songs that would become instant classics and continue to be popular for decades to come. And he did all that before reaching yet again a psychological dead end; before Yoko kicked him out of the house and sent him away to live what became to be known as his lost weekend; before coming back and having Sean with her, the boy that would change his life; and before hearing one more time the call of the muse.
This book is so masterfully written that can be almost read as a novel. The author manages to revive in a wonderful way a whole era, while the way he describes the songs at times sounds almost poetic. Riley seems to muster his subject very well, but that doesn’t mean that he’s handling it gently, as he gives the reader a panoramic image of the man – of John the rebel, of John the humorist, the child and the father, the musician and the actor, of John the lover and the scumbag.
Is this the best Lennon biography? It most probably is. Or at least it is way better than the other three I’ve read so far; and thus it is highly recommended to one and all that ever loved the man and his music, but to every single fan of rock music as well, because despite its title this book talks about so much more than Lennon.
Profile Image for Patrick.
231 reviews8 followers
October 18, 2011

About as solid a bio as I can imagine. Lennon was a weird guy, and after reading a bit about his upbringing it's not hard to see why.

I'd like to know more about Yoko Ono's heroin habit.

Very strong on the early Beatles in Germany.

Out of curiosity, and inspired by the account in the book, I found a YouTube clip of John and Yoko playing with Chuck Berry on the Mike Douglas Show ca. 1072. There's a highly comical moment when Yoko starts her patented caterwauling during the break on "Memphis." The look on Berry's face is priceless.
Profile Image for Brent Wilson.
198 reviews9 followers
October 4, 2012
I was so moved by his difficult life-

I kept talking to people about it, who have no interest at all. Embarrassing at times.

And he was such a broken, all-too-human being. I'm glad he found some kind of peace in a second family with Yoko and Sean. I can understand why he clung to that family and made things work. He had never had people stay with him and give him security.

I was gratified to learn more of Cynthia Lennon, his first wife. She sounds amazing in her own way - so liberal in her sympathies and keen in her understanding of human relationships. She was hugely underrated as a positive influence.
Profile Image for Jim.
7 reviews
August 1, 2012
Riley breaks from a lot of the traditional lore about Lennon and judges everything for himself. I didn't always agree, but he made me question some of my assumptions. Lennon comes across in this book as very complex, with many demons and also a sincere drive to better himself. One really funny scene: an LSD-wired Lennon calls a Beatles meeting to announce that he is the resurrected Jesus Christ. The rest of the band kind of nods and lets it go. He never brings it up again. Riley also has independent opinions on Lennon's music and makes a persuasive case for neglected songs off of "Mind Games" and "Sometime in New York City." This is the best Lennon bio so far, and I think I've read most of them.
Profile Image for Christina.
379 reviews
January 23, 2013
Riley's biography of John Lennon is very detailed and comprehensive. I've read several other books on Lennon and the Beatles, yet I learned a great deal from Riley's meticulous work. He presents a clear and honest portrait of Lennon's strengths and weaknesses, but he never stoops to the "gossipy" tone found in so many other books about rock stars. The book mixes biography and music criticism, which is natural given Riley's background as a musician and scholar. I can see how some readers might find the book a little too heavy on music criticism and theory. Personally, I enjoyed that because I found Riley's comments interesting and thought-provoking. I didn't always agree with him, but I still enjoyed reading his views. I was particularly struck by how often Riley exposes myths about Lennon and the Beatles and how he relates them to the events of their day. Riley's portrait of Lennon is comprehensive and honest. Published in 2011, I think this book benefits from the passage of time. So many of the earlier books about the Beatles are caught up in the break-up and the bad energy surrounding it. Riley discusses all of that clearly and concisely, but he takes a longer view. As a result, I think the reader sees a much clearer portrait of Lennon in the context of his time.
Profile Image for Fred Garnett.
55 reviews2 followers
February 12, 2013
Terrific book by the music journalist Tim Riley on Lennon. Particularly good on Beatles music, as you'd expect from the author of Tell Me Why and insightful in the manner of Kenneth Womack (Please Please Me sounded less like a follow up to Love Me Do that a career fuse being lit). Unlike Philip Norman he didnt have Yoko's backing and so is free to focus on what he wishes to, which is Lennon's music- making. Having read Norman's book on Lennon I didnt think there could be a more thorough work on him, but Riley shades it if you are a music fan. I've pretty much read all the books on the Beatles as I write a blog A Beatles YouTube Album, based on 9 after 909, and there is no more satisfying book on The Beatles music, it is up the with Revolution In The Head.
131 reviews
January 12, 2021
Een boeiend inkijkje in het leven van één van de beroemdste mensen op aarde, namelijk John Lennon. Een man die op veel te jonge leeftijd werd doodgeschoten door een doorgeslagen idioot. In deze biografie wordt duidelijk dat zijn leven behoorlijk ingewikkeld was en dat hij het zichzelf beslist niet altijd even makkelijk heeft gemaakt. Hij heeft het de mensen om zich heen ook niet altijd even makkelijk gemaakt dat moet ook gezegd worden. Leuk boek dat me toch weer terug bracht naar de groep die nog altijd mijn favoriet is, ik heb tijdens het lezen dan ook regelmatig naar hun muziek geluisterd, want dat hoort er uiteraard bij als je een biografie over een popartiest leest vind ik
Profile Image for Dave Schwensen.
Author 10 books3 followers
July 18, 2013
This book has a lot of information. It also carries a little too much of the author’s personal critique and dissection about Lennon’s music and what was going on in his head while writing the songs the songs. I had a difficult time dealing with that since I doubt even Yoko Ono knew everything that was going on in his head.

I really debated giving this book four or five stars. It deserves both, so I’ll actually give it four and a half. The research the author did in putting together this massive narrative on John Lennon is mind-blowing and even makes reading the bibliography entertaining. The first part of the book about Lennon’s youth is detailed, fascinating and very well written. It digs deep into his relationship between his two mothers – his real mother Julia (Judy) and Aunt Mimi who pretty much raised him. According to the author, these relationships and an absent father who abandoned him, shaped the mental state that controlled him musically, personally, mentally, and eventually into his relationship with Yoko Ono.

Between these detailed descriptions, the author falls too deep into his own mental process about Lennon’s music. In doing this he seems to skim over important career marks. For instance, if he can interpret Lennon’s song lyrics (always a reaction ‘against’ or crying ‘for’ his mother), then why couldn’t he do the same about his mental state during the Shea Stadium concert, Budokan or Manila? Those are part of any Beatles highlight film and they were hardly mentioned.

As a fan, I can say I learned a few new things about Lennon. But to reinforce my above rating, five stars means you can’t put it down. You need to read it. This book took two library check-out sessions (three weeks each) to dig through all the author’s music theory. In other words, it didn’t turn me into a hyper-active page turner desperate to find out what would happen next. In fact, I read two other books at the same time and finished both while still reading this one.

For dedicated all-consuming Beatles fans, I’ll recommend it. For the average or beginner fan, as George Harrison once sang: “It’s all too much!”
Profile Image for Julie_ian_curtis.
844 reviews23 followers
March 22, 2017
this was a real let down i wanted JOHN, but you had to search thru all this other stuff to get the John info. also i didnt like they way he kept referring to him as 'Lennon'. ok yeah i know thats his name but it was like he was a 'thing' like a cultural item, not a person. Philip Norman's john lennon the life is far better. although i did agree with some stuff - he says everyone ragged on yoko until paul married heather -then paul copped it. this is true. heather/paul was a car crash. also he mentions that everyone was all'lennon's influence on paul' and not vice versa. and that paul gets a bum rap as the more sensitve, lame lyric beatle as opposed to johns hardcore stuff.this is true but it was good to see it re-said. mentions of john being mean to brian but once again of u know anything about john, you know this already. and of course, for those who are new to the disillusion factor, there is much mention of 'john is an asshole', many mentions of women-hating etc. we know this - no new evidence mentioned, same lost weekend,cheating on yoko, may pang stuff. other reviews are like 'oh this dude has read all john stuff ever so he is the man, this is definitive' if so it would have been more sympathetic. he may have read it all but he doesnt *feel* it. the last chapter on the death etc was lame - recycled shit we all know well. also gives a big harsh to fred seaman (spelling?!) ok yeah we know freds a sellout but @ the time it gave us info. once again, go to Philip Norman's john lennon the life if u want the best work. do NOT go to albert goldman's (lame) work.
Profile Image for Sue.
Author 15 books26 followers
February 4, 2016
It takes perseverance to get through a 700+-page nonfiction book, but this one is worth it, at least for fans of John Lennon's music. Riley’s book is loaded with information, not just about Lennon and the other Beatles but about the times he lived in and the places where he lived. He gives a whole history of rock ‘n roll, linking Lennon’s work back to the musicians who inspired it and ahead to the ones who followed. He offers details behind every song and every album, how it was written, how it was arranged and recorded, who wrote which passages and what they were really about. He shares the times Lennon was drunk or stoned, the times he acted out, and the twisted childhood that tormented him all his life. I don’t know if I would have wanted to know all that when I was a teenage fan experiencing my first burst of vicarious lust, but I find it all fascinating now.

The research job here is incredible. Riley must have read everything ever written about Lennon, interviewed everyone who ever knew him, and taken in every bit of film, video, vinyl and digital media. Somehow he managed to pull it all together into a very readable book that I had to put down occasionally due to its massive size but didn’t want to stop until I knew the whole story. Now I’m playing Lennon music on my record player and my Kindle Fire, thinking wow, how did I miss all this?

There are many other books about John Lennon. It seems everyone who was a Beatle or knew a Beatle wrote a book. I’ll never read them all, but I can’t imagine any of them could be as complete as this one. Bravo, Tim Riley.
Profile Image for William.
410 reviews3 followers
March 13, 2018
Having read many other books about John, I thought that I would just leaf through this one but now I think that this might be the definitive biography with its precise examination of his formative traumas.
Profile Image for Jeff.
377 reviews
December 23, 2011
I couldn't read this all the way through. It was well researched but also included critical notes on each album starting with the Beatles. Too detailed for me.
Profile Image for Dean.
75 reviews
March 7, 2012
Excellent all encompassing biography of the musical legend John Lennon. A very enjoying read.
July 7, 2012
This is a very amazing book! It has just about every detail of John's life and is extremely long but if you're a huge Lennon fan like me, you'll really enjoy it and I would really suggest reading it.
Profile Image for Ben.
96 reviews9 followers
December 31, 2020
Tim Riley’s Lennon is a book for Americans and only Americans. Prior to reading this I wouldn’t have thought there was anything wrong with writing a book for a specific audience, but by crikey has this dissuaded me of that particular notion. It’s probably not as bad as it seemed to me, but there were so many little things that really grated on me. A particularly annoying example: at one point Riley quotes John calling someone a wanker, but totally undercuts the humour by immediately explaining that wanker is “Scouser slang for ‘jerk-off’”. A few pages later the word “arse” made an appearance, which I was half-expecting to be defined as “Scouser slang for ‘fanny’”.

And then there’s the constant condescension towards “the Brits”, whose opinions are discarded as being clouded by their silly national obsession with class. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no big fan of the British, particularly the English, but this is just so patently absurd. Apparently it never occurred to Riley that Americans might be anything other than pure and objective and totally unrestrained by any pre-conceived notions or biases or prejudices of their own. But the thing that annoyed me the most is the obsession with what was happening in US history at the time, page after page rhapsodising about the Kennedy assassination or the presidential elections or Vietnam. And, you know, sure, I can see why such things deserve a place in a biography of John Lennon, not when events in the UK (where John Lennon and the other Beatles were actually living and working at the time! Surely you’d limit the American commentary to when the period when he was actually living in America?) are given only a cursory acknowledgment at best and no other country gets anything. Actually I’m tempted to write my own biography of John Lennon using the same techniques, jumping from analysis of the group’s newfound maturity on Rubber Soul and its influence on their contemporaries to detailing Australia’s transition to a decimalised currency. I mean, hey, it’s all the Sixties, therefore it’s relevant, right?

It’s quite frustrating, really, because when he sticks to analysing the music itself he’s actually quite good and makes some genuinely interesting and original points, which are subsequently undermined by switching to coverage of the election for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate for 1968, or by the frequent bizarre psychoanalyses of poor old Brian Epstein and his sexuality. Actually the whole thing is extremely inconsistent, some of it’s genuinely excellent but quite a lot is just plain weird - and not in a good way. Certainly it’s not the great Lennon biography I was hoping for but if you’re a fanatic like I am it’s still well worth a read.
Profile Image for Allan Heron.
358 reviews1 follower
October 29, 2020
I've been hovering between three and four stars; had there been an option for 3½ I'd have settled on that.

This is a very good look at John's life, but is told very much from an American cultural perspective. I think the impact of The Beatles on American garage rock is overstated; my perspective was that these bands followed more in the Stones' wake than the Beatles. Consequently, there's not really too much about the British bands and artists that may have been an influence outside the obvious Stones.

What really does create a cringe are some of the misreadings of British culture and some eminently verifiable references which are left intact e.g.

- the differences between Gaitskellites and Bevanites is absolutely nothing to do with Scottish accents

- a total misreading of the appearance on the Morecambe & Wise show. The author's reference to 'Wise & Morecambe' says it all

- Badfinger are not a Scottish band.

- Lennon, Spector & Harrison were not working on Instant Karma in May 1969.

I'm afraid this skewed my appreciation of what is otherwise a book that doesn't miss when it comes to discussing Lennon's many less attractive features (and there were many).

The tragedy of John is that he was murdered when he just might have been able to live a more balanced without the anger that his upbringing had impregnated in him.
167 reviews10 followers
November 2, 2019
A long, long book on John Lenonn's life. I picked the book up from one of those neighborhood boxes. It's been sitting on my bookshelf for awhile, and I've always wanted to read it.

I was interested in Lennon, for starters, because my dad is a huge Beatles fan, and I wanted to understand why Lennon and the Beatles were so appealing. The other reason is that I hear references to John Lennon in so many other places, and he seemed like a one-of-a-kind personality, so it would be great to learn his full story.

The book was good. I got lot of insight into Lennon's personality, and why he was so interesting (aside from his musical abilities). My one complaint is how long the book is. It was 600+ pages, and much of the writing was tangential riff's on esoteric musical details. But then again, it's supposed to be comprehensive, and maybe it's a good thing to have one, definitive reference book. And hardore music fans may be a lot more interesting in the technical details than I was. In any case, it was really fun to read.
6 reviews
April 19, 2020
There are many books about legendary rock musicians. There are many about John Lennon. Tim Riley's is arguably one of the better ones. He does write as if all readers can understand oblique and cryptic prose, but that slight criticism aside, Riley presents a compelling case to see John Lennon as a product of his life and times as much as a self made legend. Having read Ray Connolly's more straightforward account (Being John Lennon, 2018), alongside Riley's, I felt Tim Riley analysed events a little more, and certainly paid attention to Lennon's American oddysey in ways a British account (Connolly), does not. For example, Riley spends time detailing the group Elephant's Memory, and John Lennon's time in the group. Connolly mentions Elephant's Memory not once. Connolly, a British reporter, of course knew Lennon personally, but doesn't allow that to skew his take, and Riley himself comes up with much the same portrait at times of the complex, fragile genius who influenced more than a generation. Well worth the read.
Profile Image for Sharon Falduto.
1,115 reviews12 followers
October 20, 2019
A massive biography of the Beatle. Well researched*, in depth, lots of source material such as Cynthia Lennon's biographies. A lot of detail. John was a challenging guy. Smart, mouthy, dangerous when drunk, mean to women, ignored Julian, was all earth-father to Sean, got shot way too young. Quite a story, starting with a lot of abandonment by death. Which leads one to wonder, do we have the Beatles if John's uncle/mother/best friend didn't all die suddenly and young? There's a lot of pain there.

*Pretty well researched except when he referred to Cheap Trick as being from Wisconsin. I think Rockford, Illinois, would have something to say about that.
Profile Image for Linda.
311 reviews
July 19, 2022
I didn't really finish this. It's just too much and too long. Luckily I got it as an ebook from my library. It's too detailed and I got bored. Maybe I'll come back to it eventually. The beginning was great The pictures are great. I fast-forwarded to look at them. I'm done.
18 reviews3 followers
February 8, 2014
Well, not quite definitive. Philip Norman's 2008 John Lennon: The Life still holds that rank. I suppose new biographies of fascinating people will always be produced, but we're dealing with some well-trodden ground here. Several major "event" bios of Lennon are out there, beginning with Ray Coleman's somewhat hodge-podge and unfocused Lennon, a hero-worshipping whitewash released at the height of John's martyrdom in 1984. This was followed in 1988 by the opposite extreme, the widely despised The Lives of John Lennon, by noted vile hack Albert Goldman, who only seems to write biographies of people he dislikes on a visceral, personal level. (See also: Kitty Kelly.) Goldman's (admitted) tactics are to favor interview sources who have an axe to grind, and chop up quotes from neutral sources and take them out of context to create the most salacious text possible. (There's a hilarious SNL sketch dating from the era of the book's publication which theorizes that Goldman's bitterness was due to the fact that he was an original member of the Beatles -- on trombone -- and was kicked out before their rise to stardom: "C'mon guys, we've got to rehearse 'She Loves You Wah-Wah-Wah.'")

Is another Lennon bio worth reading, then? Yes. Riley is an outstanding music writer whose 1988 work on the technicalities of Beatles songs, Tell Me Why, brought a musicologist's touch to something that had previously been written about mostly as a social or cultural phenomenon. (A battered, well-thumbed copy of that book sits on the Holy Bee's bookshelf.) Like many biographers, Riley assumes the reader will find the Beatle years the most fascinating -- Lennon's solo career begins on page 473, leaving little space for the last decade of his life. (This is where Norman's book trumps Riley.) Any new biography will have some fresh tidbits, but there's nothing too earth-shattering here. Still, it's a good story well-told, which is always worthwhile.

Riley does not gloss over Lennon's psychological issues and personal foibles (the great peace advocate had a vicious temper and mean streak a mile wide when he hit the bottle), but falls over himself gushing over his musical contribution to the Beatles -- rightly so, of course, but he can't seem to do it without taking unrelenting potshots at McCartney. I'm no McCartney apologist, but Riley seems to believe the only way to build Lennon up is to tear McCartney down, to the point that it seems compulsive. Even McCartney's best stuff -- such as his terrific, belting lead vocal on "Oh! Darling" -- is met with Riley's statement "If only McCartney had let Lennon take a run at the lead vocal of 'Oh! Darling.'" Jesus, let the man have something, Tim! (Oddly, Riley's attitude toward Paul softens considerably during the solo years when he was doing his weakest work. Perhaps he was no longer perceived as a threat to Lennon's legacy at that point...)

Riley also has a tendency to attach far more importance to small events than seems necessary -- the two-and-a-half page breakdown on the significance of the Beatles' jokey 1963 guest appearance on the BBC comedy-variety program The Morecambe & Wise Show seems like overkill. And some digressions read like Riley is pilfering his own desk drawer, squeezing earlier essays he wrote on other topics into the Beatles' story. At least this is my impression. (We recognize our own -- Your Humble Narrator is 100% guilty of doing the same thing.) Almost five pages on the impact of American garage-rock? Interesting, but only tangentially connected to the story of John Lennon.
Profile Image for Sara.
173 reviews
February 10, 2013
I have always been a fan of The Beatles, but I never got into much biographical info about the band until last year, when I watched the Scorsese film about George Harrison. This book had me adoring John part of the time and hating his guts the rest of the time. He seems like a pretty complex personality, so maybe that is only fitting.

First the adoration. John was obviously an amazing artist. I enjoyed learning about the beginnings of the band, how their image was re-worked to sell records (ditch the pompadour hairstyles and the leather, stop cursing on stage, for God's sake don't move around too much, it's too sexual). The stories about the road and studio sessions were entertaining. When the group fell victim to the promises of an Indian mystic, John was the one to stand up and admit that this guy was clearly NOT all he claimed to be when nobody else had the guts to do so. He was passionate, smart, opinionated and he didn't let people push him around. Mostly.

Now the ugly part. John had a real love/hate relationship with women. He was basically abandoned by his mother as a boy and this resulted in a self-consciousness that he tried to cover up with bravado and rock star bullshit. For most of his life, he used the women around him (including his first wife) without any shame at all. Only Yoko (say what you will about her) seemed to inspire any real feeling in him, but even she could only take so much. John's true love was, well...John.

After finishing the book, I listened to his last interview from 1980. He sounded genuinely happy. He was coming back to music after a 5 year absence and said that he already had half the songs written for his next album. He talked about how much he loved New York and looked forward to whatever came next. It made me feel a little sad, and just like all the women in his life, I had to forgive him for acting like such an ass sometimes.
Profile Image for Steve.
18 reviews1 follower
September 16, 2014
First off; good book. I enjoyed it.

Next, if you're thinking of picking this one up and hoping for another tale of Lennon Hero Worship... forget it. While Riley is definitely a fan and has admiration for Lennon, he does not grovel at Lennon's altar.

The book spends a considerable number of pages in Hamburg, which I was delighted to read. But it also provides some details on Lennon's life prior to The Beatles taking off, examining the differences between his real mother, Julia and his Aunt Mimi, who took him in when his real parents weren't responsible enough to raise a child.

It lets you know with certainty that Lennon's father returned to his life in later years, something a lot of other biographies gloss over. As for the nature of that relationship... read the book.

Riley's forte is the examination of music and he provides key information and facts on Lennon's work; both with The Beatles and as a solo artist (as well as his collaborations with Yoko Ono).

The latter half of the book deals with Lennon's trials and tribulations after his departure from The Beatles. This is an area I had little exposure to and it definitely provides an insight during his addiction phase, his 'Lost Weekend,' the intricacies and complexity of his marriage to Ono, and where he was, physically and spiritually, just prior to his death.

There are aspects to Ono I was unaware of before reading this book, and while I still harbor some resentment for her... interferences... I've come away with an understanding of some of her actions, as well as some new-found respect for her. Not sure if that was an intention of Riley, but... there it is. If you're still holding her to blame, there are moments of light here that every Beatle/Lennon fan should know.

This is a good book. I was surprised by quite a few revelations and I was very entertained.
Profile Image for Ad.
46 reviews4 followers
February 18, 2012
tim riley is very good at anaylizing songs and how they`re put together which i love about this book. the short comming of this book to me is the writing will be going along in a very good flow and then a wrench seems to be thrown in because of language use loses it rythmn and tries to get overally intellectualized. John lennon`s story is so intriguing and then ends so tragically just as he appeared to be getting his life together. As a by product of the details in his life you learn much about the history of the times, Tim Riley does this well. This social history really helped me understand the inspiration behind the songs and what John Lennon must`ve felt when he was livin. There is a lot of information I wasn`t aware of about Yoko that sheds some light about her that makes her an individual rather then John`s shadow. the best part i thought for John was after his second solo album imagine. he asserted his individuality past beatledom and became more then just a rock star but a grassroots politic figure who was becomming such a positive influence for people, creating great changes at least in peoples minds, i think this was his pinnacle. Lastly i see the impressions he created have everlasting appeal from feminism to freedom of speech and expression for this it has made him a very important figures in our history even if it was by his getting killed led him to this echelon and high regard despite his many faults.
Profile Image for Hal.
555 reviews3 followers
October 17, 2015
There has been so much written on the life of John Lennon and I finally got around to reading one of them. Tim Riley seemed to put together a pretty good portrait of the man and his remarkable life. There is no doubt Lennon was a creative genius and along with that came the baggage of the genius\artist. No doubt most of his personal struggles in life came from his strange rearing and experiences. He gave us much to ponder and question in life and like a lot of people wrestled with the demons that made it for himself and others a hell at times. Mixing the good with the bad we end up with just a man after all, yet a man that so many connected with in a spiritual sense yet may not have felt so in dealing with him on a daily basis. His first son Julian I think summed up a lot of about what John was in saying, "I have to say that, from my point of view, I felt he was a hypocrite. Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces - no communication, adultery, divorce? You can't do it, not if you're being true and honest with yourself." I have to agree in what I saw here, still the senseless loss of what might have evolved haunts us.
Profile Image for Brent.
1,938 reviews170 followers
January 31, 2016
I really enjoy Riley's musical analysis, as in his earlier, 1980s Beatles criticism in Tell Me Why. Tim Riley It's especially interesting to compare with Philip Norman's Lennon biography from three years ago. They cover the same ground with differing emphases. Norman tells the story with admirable attention to the incidents at the roots of Beatles songs, yet includes no source notes, only citation within the narrative. Riley cites Norman and other writers where appropriate, cuts McCartney's sentimentality repeatedly, and includes interviews and primary sources to good effect. Both are recommended: if you read just one, right now, I'd say this one.
Special thanks to author and comics scripter J. Marc DeMatteis for alerting and previewing Riley's Lennon bio in the DeMatteis blog! Go, seek him out, too. J. M. DeMatteis
908 reviews
January 4, 2012
It hurts a bit to realise that John Lennon was quite often an asshole, but I already knew that. This really is an excellent biography actually, especially for a Beatles nut like myself. Even though it doesn't bring a lot more to the table than Phillip Norman's treatise of a few years ago.
To counter the criticism of some of his less desirable traits this book does lay the foundation of exploring his own dysfunctional family and fraught relationship especially with his mother Julia. Other than that it does sound, at all times, plausible and in the end no -one comes out either smelling of roses or the opposite. I guess it simply fuelled my passion for the Beatles a little more, so that's a pretty good result.
1 review
August 9, 2013
I was disappointed and frankly surprised that so many rate this book highly. There are numerous errors that are repeated several times (identifying Badfinger as a Scottish group indicates poor editing or lazy scholarship.) In addition, there is some bizarre analysis and tenuous subjective commentary; Reilly must be the only Beatle fan in the world to rate Paul's 'That Means A Lot' as a lost Beatles classic. If you're after a Lennon biography the Philip Norman book is much better; it is better written and offers more in the way of revelation. The Norman biography was a pleasant surprise as I loathed 'Shout'!
This isn't a terrible book, but too many weaknesses that preclude it from being viewed as essential or more than moderately successful.
Profile Image for Fred.
41 reviews23 followers
July 16, 2016
Wow, great book if you are interested in the history of rock n roll. The author is clearly a big fan of Lennon, but he doesn't cut him any slack. He covers Lennon's life from tumultuous beginnings to the tragic end. The author identified the drugs Lennon used and the people who introduced them to him. It was apparent that he had a destructive relationship with alcohol. He followed in the footsteps of the alcoholic father that abandoned him. The book covers the groups and musicians that influenced him and of course his relationship with the other Beatles. It was obvious that the competition between McCartney and Lennon fueled a lot of their musical creativity, but it also led to the break up of the group. At 660 pages there's a lot of details to wade through, but it's worth it.
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